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Thank Sherlock Holmes for the Phrase ‘Smoking Gun’

13 July 2017

From Smithsonian.com:

The evidence is irrefutable. The headlines declare a “smoking gun” has been found. But how did this dramatic image of a phrase become synonymous in everyday speech with conclusive proof? Fittingly, the origins lie with one of the world’s most famous fictional detectives, and of course, a recently fired pistol.

The 1893 Arthur Conan Doyle short story “The Adventure of the ‘Gloria Scott'” depicts a young Sherlock Holmes solving his first professional case. Holmes was asked by a college friend to decipher a mysterious letter that had caused his father to drop dead. It turned out to be blackmail related to a mutiny that the father had organized on a prison ship taking him to Australia long ago. In the story’s climactic flashback to the event, the father explains the mutineers were forced to quickly massacre the crew when their stash of guns was discovered by the ship’s doctor. After shooting several guards, they moved to seize control of the ship:

 “[W]e rushed on into the captain’s cabin, but as we pushed open the door there was an explosion from within, and there he lay wit’ his brains smeared over the chart of the Atlantic which was pinned upon the table, while the chaplain stood with a smoking pistol in his hand at his elbow.”

“A good copy editor would have fixed Doyle’s awkward ‘in his hand at his elbow,’ and Sir Arthur chose pistol rather than gun,” wrote the late William Safire in his  “On Language” column for the New York Times Magazine in 2003. Nevertheless, those quibbles aside, he identifies Doyle’s use of the phrase as “the start of the cliché that grips us today.”

Link to the rest at Smithsonian.com

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4 Comments to “Thank Sherlock Holmes for the Phrase ‘Smoking Gun’”

    • Hmm. I’ll give you Lippincott’s Journal reference in 1889 (or McBride’s of the same year) – but the popularization of it most likely did come with the Strand story in 1893.

      But… While I highly respected the late William Safire, and stopped paying any attention to the NYT “newspaper” when he stopped writing articles for them, the phrase “smoking gun” did not really start until writers got sloppy. A pistol is a precise description – a gun can mean everything from a tiny lady’s pistol up through a 155mm artillery piece (or even the enormous “rail guns” so loved by Kruppwerk artisans).

      Of course, anyone who writes of a “smoking gun” in any setting later than several decades ago should be hammered hard by critics, unless they make it clear that it is a very old “gun.”

  1. Suburbanbanshee

    Among linguists, Safire was notorious for being wrong, and for creating or perpetuating language myths in his column. There is no reason that he couldn’t have done more factchecking, but neither he nor his employers cared to do so.

    I hate to speak ill of the dead, but he is not a good source.

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